By Ben Leonard
Let’s not sugarcoat it: Angel Pagan was unabashedly terrible last season. Although as always, his hair was perfectly majestic, his defense was suspect and his offense was shoddy. At one point in August, he was the worst (WAR) San Francisco Giants player to ever earn enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title.
Usually that means there’s no one to replace you, or the manager is infatuated with you — and last season, it was a little bit of both. Hunter Pence’s injury left the Giants little choice but to run out Pagan every day despite him not being close to 100%, but Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy has always had a soft-spot for his
centerfielder and lead-off hitter, which helped him earn that dubious honor.
But that doesn’t mean we should expect the same out of him next season — he was hobbled and playing through knee pain for most of last season. It clearly limited his range in the outfield, taking away his speed, but he kept insisting that he was fine, even though he had to miss significant time and have offseason arthroscopic surgery to repair it. Despite the flashy plays that he sometimes makes, Pagan had never been a great, or even average defender by any stretch of the imagination, and not being completely healthy exposed that flaw.
Not only did it affect his defense, but also his offense, preventing him from driving the ball with any sort of authority. He posted his lowest wRC+ (81) since his rookie season, and looked lost at the plate at times, probably in part because he didn’t have his legs under him. It was no surprise he was a singles hitter (.070 ISO) — he couldn’t create any sort of torque with his lower half, preventing him from catching up to fastballs. Usually a slightly above average fastball hitter, Pagan posted a career-low FanGraph’s fastball pitch value (-18.9).
When he was reasonably healthy — even before the surgery — he looked like the Pagan of old that Giants fans had come to know and love. As you can see below, Pagan started the season fresh and relatively healthy, which the results mirrored for the first month of the season. As the marathon that is the baseball season wore on, there’s a clear downward spiral — until a DL stint in August freshened him up, helping him finish the season strong. Clearly, Pagan still has it in him.
There’s plenty of reason to believe a healthy, post-surgery Pagan can bounce back and not be anything close to terrible this season because. But that’s a big “if” at this point. He’s not getting any younger — he’ll turn 35 in July — and staying on the field isn’t exactly his forte, playing in an average of 100 games the past three seasons. If he can avoid getting worn down as the season progresses, watch out NL West.
Playing left field and being out of the leadoff spot this season could be a both a blessing and a curse for Pagan. His defensive skills should certainly play up in left field, where he’ll have less ground to cover. We won’t be seeing another putrid defensive season like we did last year, in which he lost the most runs (-20 DRS) defensively of any player in baseball.
But there’s one caveat — will he be able to swallow his pride and handle playing a diminished role? Pagan had to act like “the man” to stand out in his seven-year journey to the major leagues, and he still does today. Bruce Bochy said that he’s sure Pagan’s “preference is to stay in center field. That’s normal for any player.”
How Pagan handles the position change will determine if he’ll be serviceable — or if Gregor Blanco will become the everyday left fielder. I actually see it lighting a fire under him — given Pagan’s history and demeanour, he’ll want to prove that he can still play center. By no stretch of the imagination would he push Denard Span out of center field, but having someone ahead of him would certainly help him want it even more. It appears that Pagan lives for competition, a trait that has helped him make a living off overachievement.
If Pagan can stay healthy and not let the position change affect him, he likely will be an effective left fielder for the Giants in 2016. Nothing extraordinary, but that’s not what the Giants need at this point. With no clear weaknesses on the roster, the Giants looking for Pagan to be the driving force in their offense anymore. He’ll be an improved (but still not good) defensive outfielder, and a roughly league average bat. But to Blanco’s dismay, not terrible.